The Marathon Bombings and the Lockdown of Boston: Was it really a Vindication of the Surveillance State?

 By Falguni A. Sheth and Robert E. Prasch

 

The sub-text of the official state view and media coverage coming out of Boston over the last week carried a crucial message to the American public: it was a vindication of the Counter-Terrorism Surveillance State and its massive expenditures and the associated erosion of American constitutional liberties.

To that end, the several days since the bombing of the Boston Marathon showcased a mesmerizing display of reality television mediated by the unquestioning officiousness of the fourth estate.   On vivid display was “proof through performance,” a validation, that the laws passed and massive expenditures incurred over the last decade were essential to the state’s  “protection of the public.”

Multiple banners flashed across the scene with short exciting spins about the status of the manhunt for the bombing suspects; they were accompanied by endlessly repeated images of Boston and Watertown police, SWAT teams and FBI officers, all carrying a dazzling array of complicated weapons, bordered by police cars.  There wasn’t a civilian in sight, since they all appeared to have accepted the ‘command’ (which was in fact a request) to stay inside. These images alternated with breathless images of reporters ‘at the scene,’ filibustering inanely, occasionally offering proud announcements about how they were asked to ‘move back’ as the focus of the police search for the suspects shifted. It was as if they were children proudly reporting how they were asked by their teacher to help clean the blackboards.

The past decade has seen Presidents, politicians — conservatives and liberals alike — champion pre-emptive policing laws such as the USA PATRIOT Act, FISA, NDAA 2012 and 2013, to TSA security practices and searches, to “See Something, Say Something” practices—all in service to fighting the War on Terror.  As a cable-news talking head cooed Friday morning: “There are cameras and social media everywhere. There is nowhere to hide!” That statement seemed indisputable: store cameras, street cameras, private cellphone cameras and videos could be integrated to give an astonishingly wide record of the tens of thousands of people who were at last Monday’s event.  Yet, the most important truth of that day seemed to be lost in the gush of self-congratulation: the explosion of the bombs confirmed that a massive extension of the surveillance-state did NOT protect people in Boston.

Remarkably, this message of the paramilitarized surveillance state was in no way challenged merely because it was inaccurate. By the time Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick ended the “shelter in place” request, the second suspect had still not been found. Suddenly, the Boston public was supposed to believe that they were magically safer after the lock-down ended than before.   But lest one come to conclude that this suggested a failure of the militant and closely watchful surveillance state—Rachel Maddow, Erin Burnett, and other cable news heads happily rushed to its vindication—by triumphantly exclaiming the insightful fruits of the years-long “See Something, Say Something” campaign by the DHS.

The rough description that the media had in common was this: A guy walked out to his boat to smoke a cigarette, saw something moving, and lifted the tarp—only to find the injured suspect. At which point, he retreated and called the police!  Would the boat-owner have acted differently prior to the “See Something, Say Something” campaign?  Never mind.

Indeed, the vaunted magic of (decades-old) infrared technology, increased surveillance, and the absence of restraints on law enforcement, of this massive martial state could be all be justified through the lens of the state itself, a breathless and supine media, and an ostensibly cowering but now relieved public. Yeah! The War on Terror is so successful! See?

But the show did not end there.  As Erin Burnett crowed: “They took him alive! This proves that there is justice in America! Innocent til proven guilty.” Despite its nonsensical meaning, this oblique message was reiterated by the President, who cautioned us against a “rush to judgment”—certainly about groups of people. Apparently, “[t]hat’s why we have courts.”  Hmmm. That’s going to be news to some folks still languishing in Cuba.

Not to be outdone by an illusory call for order by a President who has supported multiple renewals of FISA and pressured the Senate into the approving an expansion of executive power to arrest and detain any suspected terrorist (US citizen or foreign national) anywhere in the world (in NDAA 2012 and 2013), Sen. Lindsay Graham insisted that we were seeing proof that the homeland was the battlefield. And indeed, it’s hard to disagree with him—even if one is critical.  Moreover, according to Graham and Sen. McCain, even a 19 year old naturalized citizen (vaguely fingered as Chechnyan and Muslim) CAN and should be treated as an enemy combatant.

What further cements this view of the Homeland as a Battlefield– is the public, collective, and casual insistence that a 19 year old should not be read his Miranda rights—because an asserted “public safety exception” can be invoked in view of the fact that other IED’s or pressure-cooker bombs might have been set.  With this, we are halfway to Alan Dershowitz’ favored fantasy: next, let’s torture him–because we ‘know’ a bomb might be set somewhere by him that threatens to hurt Americans. However—shockingly–even Dershowitz refuses to be fear-mongered, arguing instead that that the only logical outcome was a civilian trial, insisting that “It’s not even clear under the federal terrorism statute that this qualifies as an act of terrorism.”

Moreover, there was nearly no element of the recently reinforced surveillance state that contributed to the capture or killing these two suspects.  As an example, let’s assume every detail of the attack is the same except that it occurred in 1977 (to pick a random date prior to our ubiquitous Counter-Terrorism surveillance state; remember how we used to have “bad guys” before September 11?). If the “bad guys” had put together such a plan in 1977, would events have unfolded any differently?  Would there have been a lot of photography at the finish line of such a prominent public event?  Yes, although in the pre-digital age, it would have taken a little longer to gather and sort through the pictures.  Hence, this aspect of this past week’s outcome can’t be ascribed to the massive expenditures and “federalization” of “homeland security,” but rather to a change in consumer electronics.

Would the two brothers have been flushed out by the police response to a nearby and unrelated robbery that led to the tragic shooting of a MIT police officer, the carjacking and ensuing chase that ended with the shootout in Watertown?  It is hard to credit this sequence of events, which were initiated by a mere coincidence, to the success of the modern surveillance state.  Would the initial shootout in Watertown, the escape of one of the brothers, and the eventual spotting of blood on the side of a boat and the calling in of that observation have unfolded in more or less the same way in 1977?  Probably.

Where is the added value?  In what way have the massive expenditures, intrusive surveillance practices, and stripping away of our liberties been vindicated by the events of this past week?  In fact, no one can truthfully say “Aha!  This is where these new practices have made a difference!  Thank goodness George W. Bush and Barack Obama have so little regard for the American Constitution or everything would have really gone badly at that particular point in these events.”

What we witnessed was a tragic — but sadly – too familiar sequence of events.  In a nation of over 340 million, we have a few demented or damaged souls with real or imagined grievances that cause them to wish to harm people whom they do not know.  We also have good, brave, and competent local and state police forces that are able and willing to solve these crimes.  It was true back in 1977—and long before–and remains true today.

So what in fact did change? We now have a “War on Terror” that permeates every public news event and action. The immediate leap to the familiar “Terrorists In Our Midst” narrative is facilitated and amplified by a bovine mainstream media amped up by endless alerts issued by a Department of Homeland Security and two Presidential Administrations about insane foreigners here, there, and everywhere. In other words, what’s changed is the presence of a fear-mongering narrative of the War on Terror, along with the billions in expenditures that are used to justify it, that reframe a centuries old story about crime.

The events of the past week in Boston do not vindicate the rise of the Homeland Security bureaucracy and certainly do not vindicate the stripping of our liberties, the shutting down of a major city, or the instantiation of a police state. But they certainly affirm the future as it was perceived by George Orwell.

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This article has been republished on Salon.com.

 

Violence Begets Violence: Turning to Dr. King in the aftermath of the Boston Bombings

This piece is in Salon, under various headlines:

Where does the hate come from?

Amid this tragedy, we ought to remember that violence begets violence, force begets force

By

Yesterday’s news of multiple explosions going off near the end of the Boston Marathon route was heart-stopping. That such a joyous event — attended by tens of thousands of families, of international visitors and athletes — could be so violently disrupted by such heinous evil was unfathomable. The tragedies are made all the worse by the realization that for some, it was a memorial in the name of the children and adults who died in the Newtown massacre. And even as I empathized with yesterday’s victims and their families, I shudder to think that they experienced what countries around the world treat as a fact of their quotidian existence.

That pain and grief was the same as that which occurs whenever I read another report about a U.S.-led drone strike that has killed children, maimed teenagers, destroyed weddings in Pakistan or Yemen or Afghanistan. Yesterday’s news — of a child dead, of the injuries of many a father and mother, of the limbs of exhausted athletes and supportive spectators blown off, of others whose limbs were amputated in the triage for survival — again brought to mind the prophesy of “violence begetting violence.” As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. warns in his “Loving Your Enemies” sermon, delivered in Montgomery, Ala., on Nov. 17, 1957:

Men must see that force begets force, hate begets hate, toughness begets toughness. And it is all a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for all and everybody.

And yet, that cycle of force begetting force, of the increasing permanence of violence that is soaking into every facet of our society, seems to be lost on so many, especially those who are capable of stopping it: our political and military leaders. Again, in the prescient, wise words of Dr. King:

Somebody must have sense enough to dim the lights [of destruction], and that is the trouble, isn’t it? That as all of the civilizations of the world move up the highway of history, so many civilizations, having looked at other civilizations that refused to dim the lights, and they decided to refuse to dim theirs. And Toynbee tells that out of the twenty-two civilizations that have risen up, all but about seven have found themselves in the junkheap of destruction. It is because civilizations fail to have sense enough to dim the lights.

Click through to read the rest….

GiTMO Prisoners, Their Hunger Strikes, and Our Humanity

The Guantanamo Hunger Strike Should Remind Us of Prisoners’ Humanity

—and Reawaken Ours.

Recently, Olga Khazan, The Atlantic’s global editor, wrote a piece doubting the effectiveness of the hunger strike being led by Guantanamo detainees since February 7. The strike, begun in protest against the prisoners’ Korans being rifled, has taken on a much larger significance: It is a protest against the continual incarceration and brutalization of the prisoners, some of whom have been there, without being charged, since the opening of prison 11 years ago. The actual number of strikers varies, depending upon who is reporting. According to a military spokesman, there are 39 strikers, with 11 being force-fed nutritional supplements through their noses. The lawyer for Shaker Amer, one of the detainees participating in the hunger strike since it began, reports that there are 130 strikers.

Khazan’s main argument is that hunger strikes are most effective when conducted by a sympathetic group. It is, in several ways, a bizarre conclusion to draw. What does it mean to say that the GTMO detainees are an unsympathetic group? Unsympathetic to whom? To that crowd for whom unilateral Executive declarations of guilt—without public charges, evidence, or trial–are to be received uncritically, much like religious faith? Or perhaps to reporters like Robert Johnson who, as Glenn Greenwald reports, clearly believes Guantanamo is a vacation paradise with first class food. Clearly, that’s not the group to whom the detainees are appealing. After all, if that were true, they wouldn’t be atrophying in frigid cells, suffering kidney and urinary tract infections from nonpotable water, worrying about whether the next beating they received from a 300 lb guard was going to paralyze them for life, or whether they would ever be released.

On the other hand, a group of people who has been detained for 11 years without being charged–with anything–is a remarkably sympathetic group for those of us who are committed to the rule of law, who object to violations of procedure, and the imperious expansion of state authority. Judging from the length of this strike, as Amy Davidson states, something has gone very wrong at Guantanamo. But something went wrong 11 years ago, and has yet to be rectified—namely that ANY populace ANYWHERE would tolerate men being imprisoned without trials, evidence, charges for any sustained period time.

Khazan is correct that the GTMO detainees will receive no sympathy from the current Presidential Administration. That is precisely the motivation to strike publicly. Since when have hunger strikers ever had the sympathy of the institutions or regimes against whom they are striking? Neither suffragettes nor the students in the Tiananmen protests against Chinese state authorities, nor anti-colonial leaders such as M.K. Gandhi ever had a sympathetic ear from the authorities to whom they were appealing.

Yet the use of hunger strikes by the above groups is fundamentally different from hunger strikes conducted by prisoners. Even though groups such as Black prisoners in Soledad State Prison in 1970 or those in Walpole State Prison in 1980 were hardly ‘sympathetic,’ their acts were publicly compelling. I would suggest that it is because prisoners are among the most reviled of populations that a hunger strike by them is such a compelling act.

It is not hard be exposed to the sheer loathing of a group who has been been caged: the image—real or imagined—of a person caged, treated like a wild animal, is an effective way to pre-empt sympathy. For many, it raises questions about the moral and intellectual status of the prisoner. They must be guilty or behaviorally unpredictable, or savage, or cruel, or ready to hurt, maim, or rape you. These are the (intended) associations of imprisoning someone—regardless of whether the punishment was meted out procedurally. The imprisoned are reduced to terrifying, dangerous creatures. We saw this in the pictures of Abu Ghraib abuse scandal, as well as in the descriptions of prisoners that came from top officials. As Major General Geoffrey Miller, in charge of Guantanamo prison in 2004, was reported to have said of the detainees:

… [T]hey are like dogs and if you allow them to believe at any point that they are more than a dog then you’ve lost control of them.

The commanding element of a hunger strike as a form of protest is precisely that it doesn’t harm others physically. That absence of harm to others is part of the hunger strike’s command to pay attention: it is the antithesis of how a vilified population would be predicted to act in protest or outrage. Instead, the hunger strike is an act of harm to oneself. It involves deprivation to oneself—of nourishment. It involves a re-orientation of oneself: towards death.

There is the another arresting element of a hunger strike conducted by a prisoner: it is plainly the last resort of a being who has nothing else with which to bargain: no other tool, no other leverage, no other allies who can advocate effectively or successfully for those who are striking. The prisoner who engages in an hunger strike uses the only means left at his disposal–his life–which ostensibly is the only leverage that he can have control over. In that imagined spectacle—communicated only through lawyers and journalists–the hunger strike reintroduces us to the humanity of a person who is—at least physically—hurting no one else but himself. It brings up associations of martyrdom, suffering, moral decisions—uniquely human associations. A third and most powerful element of the hunger strike is the insistence that this one aspect of someone’s existence—one’s humanity, one’s ‘aliveness’—will not be ceded to any other authority.

That might be why, historically, there have continually been moral prohibitions against suicide, whether through religious teachings or state policies: ending one’s life is the one thing that—in ordinary circumstances–others’ authority cannot physically compel you to refrain from. This explains why, in prisons, the relevant authorities make every effort to deny a person the ultimate decision that is available to free people—the decision to live or die.

As Jonathan Hafetz said in a recent Guardian article,

A hunger strike provides detainees with a way to reassert some measure of control over their own lives. By refusing to eat, they force the world to recognize their existence and humanity and to confront the reality of their continued imprisonment. Legal rulings can be rationalized or ignored in a way that a dying prisoner cannot.

But in fact, even that control is wrested away: Notice that I didn’t refer to one’s “aliveness” as the only leverage which one does have control over. It used to be that the purpose of the state—as understood through Hobbesian or Lockean social contract theory—was to monopolize the power to kill: In return for ceding the right to kill in self-defense, you would be guaranteed protection by the state. Part of that protection included managing and controlling the freedom of others who were a danger to you–those who broke the law—hence, arrests, charges, trials. But alongside the discarding of procedure, the state is increasingly trying to monopolize the control of one’s life (aliveness), that is, to seize the only remaining leverage that a prisoner might have—the ability to control his aliveness.

In the current moment, as the Guantanamo prisoners strike, the state is trying to misappropriate this final degree of leverage from the Guantanamo prisoners—even though they may not—yet—be successful. That is increasingly the definition of imprisonment: to have not merely your physical and political freedom wrenched away, but to have your freedom to decide whether to live–or die—eliminated. We see the elimination of the control over one’s life in supermax prisons, solitary confinement, psychiatric wards. ‘By control over one’s life,’ I don’t mean one’s ability to move or make quotidian decisions—about food, destination, associations, prayer, or speech—although those too—but over one’s actual alive-ness, for lack of a better distinguishing term.

On Tuesday, Kevin Gosztola reported on some of the abuses of Guantanamo detainees, 86 of whom have been authorized for release under the Obama Administration. His report came from Clive Smith, an attorney for Shaker Amer. Smith filed a report to an American court that detailed his conversation with his client, a British citizen, by phone. Amer has been detained without charges since the prison’s opening 11 years ago–but cleared for release twice during that time. He is a liaison between guards and prisoners, and has been an advocate for the other prisoners. Amer charges that he and other prisoners are beaten by the guards, subjected to forced cell extractions, deprived of sleep—among other forms of torture–and run the risk of having their backs broken, limbs broken. As well, they must endure the impositions of medical professionals who are trying to disrupt the hunger strike. It is a form of torture: the forced feeding through tubes that are painfully inserted through prisoners’ noses; the refusal to listen.

“Good! They deserve it,” some will say—even though these prisoners haven’t been charged or tried or have ever had any evidence shown of their guilt. And that is one of the main reasons that the news about the hunger strikes in Guantanamo are gaining in momentum. As of now, the US government brazenly refuses to listen to or release even the half (86) of those detainees whose innocence has been—at least tacitly–confirmed through their clearance for release. But the increasing attention might force it to change its position: There are reports of protests by activists in Sana’a and Kuwait City agitating for the release of the men who have been subject to unimaginable tortures for the last 11 years—and are now facing death.

The (imagined) spectacle, the panic of the military guards, and the forced feeding of 11 detainees, should make us all wonder about the casual acceptance of the dehumanization of these prisoners. This dehumanization began with their initial capture and continues with their uncharged, indefinite, infinite detention, and coming to a head now: with their continued torture, beatings, and maltreatment—all for crimes that the Executive Branch assumes but has no evidence to support. But even more, it should impel us to forcefully reject the horrific policies conducted by this administration: by protest, by legal means, by public vocal outrage.